In praise of Operational Excellence

I guess I have always believed in the value of planning and preparation. And I fully buy into the words of that well known philosopher Roy Keane. As in ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. So when I saw a few examples of this in action over the last few months, it really resonated with me.

Example one. I was lucky enough to get tickets for part of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup odyssey in the UK in late 2015. So I and some of my friends ended up in Cardiff on successive weekends for the games against France (magic) and Argentina (so that’s what a shuddering halt feels like?). But relax, this is not a dissection of where it all went wrong for Ireland, it’s a brief reflection on the value and necessity of excellent crowd management.

For the first weekend we stayed on the outskirts of Cardiff and, among other things, I noticed how well organised everything was. Even to the extent that the morning after the night before, when Cardiff’s streets were jammed with – being kind – inebriated revellers generating massive amounts of litter. The next morning they were generally pristine and ready for another day of excitement. I guess I rather took the management of people in and out of the Millennium stadium for granted, albeit I shouldn’t have.

However the second weekend was when I really noticed the skills I was benefiting from. Due to utterly insane hotel prices in Cardiff, and ignoring people on AirBNB who were proposing laughable deals (though 70 miles away), we had managed to secure beds for the night in Bristol, 40 miles distant. So the plan was to go to the NZ v France game on Saturday night, exit the stadium, head for the train station 300 metres away, and hop on a Bristol-bound train. And so it came to pass that a mere 15 minutes after France had thrown in the Tricolour and wimped their way out of the world cup, we were in a holding pen outside the train station. And 20 minutes after that, a large number of us that had been carefully matched to the train’s capacity were being marched right through the station and onto a waiting train. Which took off 15 minutes later and deposited us at Bristol Temple Meads station. Seamless. So kudos to Great Western Railway who had – I am utterly sure – sat down beforehand and worked this out, from the size of the pens to the capacity of the train to the timing of departure. They repeated the process equally professionally the next morning on the return leg to Cardiff. We were herded like co-operative sheep back in the direction of Cardiff.

The point being – this does NOT happen by accident. It’s all about brainstorming, planning, preparing, modelling if possible, and finally, execution. And by the way, these are the big leagues. If something goes badly wrong, people get crushed, accidents happen, unrest breaks out. I have genuinely never seen better crowd management in my life than that Saturday night in Cardiff where a sea of people, most with ‘drink taken’, were effectively and professionally managed, and even with a sense of humour.

Closer to home, we recently had occasion to move about 75% of our people around a floor where everyone has a designated desk. That was more than 500 people. And the thing was, they all had to move AT THE SAME TIME, because there were no holding pens. So we talked it through, we had a map that we shared, we told everyone what to expect and what, in turn, we expected of them. We engaged the people involved, answered any questions, and built confidence that this was in fact do-able. We told every single person clearly where they were going to, we had a trouble-shooter for each section, and then we took a deep breath and said ‘go for it’. And guess what? Despite our misgivings, our apprehension and our thoughts about ‘what could go wrong’, it didn’t.

Why not? Because we had brainstormed the event, we covered the ‘what could go wrong’ misgivings, we communicated clearly and had done the homework. Admittedly we did briefly end up with more lockers than desks, and a few ‘dazed and confused’ people had to be revived with a steaming cup of tea, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

So the next time you observe or end up as a participant in a mass participation event, give some thought to the prep work that enabled it to run smoothly and seamlessly. Sometimes it’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see that’s vitally important.



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